The week that was will be remembered in Philippine history as the week the country’s House of Representatives ruled that there was probable cause to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
But for Solicitor General Jose Calida, he will look back on it as a time when he conscientiously fulfilled his duties both as the legal defender of the republic and as a faithful Christian.
Very much in the headlines as the embattled Sereno these last few days, Calida maintains that his now famous quote following the quo warranto petition he filed before the Supreme Court against the Chief Justice was genuinely meant.
“It is for all intents and purposes ‘an act of kindness’ because nullifying her appointment for failure to comply with eligibility requirements [the complete declaration of Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth]will spare her from the agony of impeachment proceedings in the Senate,” Calida reiterated in this exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine.
To be fair, there was a tone of sincerity in the man’s voice as he said this, even as his desk at the Office of the Solicitor General in Makati City had been covered with newspaper articles where critics and Sereno’s camp alike had denounced his motives as politicized, a ploy and a gimmick among other accusations.
A Professor of Law at the Ateneo de Davao and an honor student throughout his entire schooling, the Solicitor General, who succinctly explained the basis of his petition in this interview (see sidebar), could only concede, “I do not expect her to agree with me, but we all saw the merciless impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona… in fact he died because of that… And I do not want Respondent Sereno, which I now call her, to suffer the same agony. Because she’s a fellow lawyer, I have empathy for her, and I sincerely believe she would be better off if those who judge her are her peers—her fellow justices—who know her better and who know the Constitution better than politicians in an impeachment trial.”
With kindness rarely attributed to lawyers, Calida—whose earliest affiliations outside government and his private practice are advocacies against crime, corruption and immorality—minces no words when asked if this virtue always finds a place in his actions and decisions, whether in a professional or personal capacity.
“Yes it does,” he declared. “And you know why? Because I am a Christian, and as a lawyer we can keep debating, but as a lawyer who is a Christian, we also have to be kind because we are all human beings with frailties.”
If it is difficult to envision a confident and accomplished lawyer like Calida—who on record has never lost a case in the Supreme Court—to navigate the law with a sense of compassion, perhaps it may be worthwhile to look into his history as a man of humble beginnings.
“I am a simple person because my parents were simple,” he said when asked to describe himself.
Born July 7, 1950 to public school teachers in Nuevo Iloco, Davao (now the Municipality of Mawab in Compostela Valley), Calida grew up in a rural community with a nipa hut for a home.
An only child, he had to go with his parents to the public school were they taught every day since there was no one else who could look after him while they worked.
“Most of the people who live in Mindanao are migrants from other places in the Philippines,” Calida explained.
“My parents were from Ilocos Norte—my mother from Paoay, and my father from Pasuquin. Separately they migrated to Mindanao—specifically Davao—precisely because they were teachers. And at that time, before the war, there were incentives given to those who would settle in Mindanao.”
Immersed in a learning environment even before reaching school age, Calida’s inherent intelligence was set off very early on.
“One day, there was this supervisor who oversees the public school who visited our place called Sawagnan—that was the name of our barrio. He became quite interested in my mother’s class because there was this little boy who was raising his hands all the time, eager to answer her questions. She wouldn’t call him though, and chose the regular students. I was what you’d call ‘saling pusa.’ Anyway, the supervisor must have been so amused by what he saw that he asked my mama, ‘Who’s that boy?’
“She had to reply, ‘He is my son but he is not a pupil yet.’
“After that, the supervisor asked me more questions, tested me if I could read and write, and I was able to do what he bade me. So before I knew it, the supervisor ‘promoted’ me, which meant by the age of five I was already in Grade 1,” he laughed. “That’s why I was usually two years younger than my batch mates throughout the rest of my schooling.”
Calida remembers being a quiet boy growing up since he had no siblings to play with at home. His friends were basically his classmates whom he only saw on school days what with their little hut far away from the town and isolated from neighbors.
Raised with sound morals and traditional Filipino values, the young Calida, though quiet, could always be counted on to come to a classmate’s defense to do what he does to this day as Solicitor General: “To balance the injustice and serve as the tribune of the people.”
When Calida finished fourth grade at his parents’ public school, his father moved their small family to Davao City after landing a job with the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). He completed the remaining years of elementary at another public school and qualified to take a scholarship test offered by Ateneo de Davao.
“I could have been the valedictorian of my batch at Davao Elementary School but because of residency issues—since I was technically a transferee—I graduated honorable mention and proceeded to try for a scholarship.
Fortunately, I topped the entrance test at Ateneo de Davao that year and was given 100-percent free tuition from high school all the way to college,” the gifted student narrated.
Now exposed to the Jesuits who, besides guided by the Latin motto “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” (For the Greater Glory of God) in all that they do, are reputed as free-thinkers, the once introverted Calida soon found his voice and was especially attracted to the subject of philosophy.|
“I found it very exciting and very interesting to challenge ideas and beliefs, even those of the Jesuits themselves. But I appreciated my Jesuit teachers because they were sport. They don’t mind if you question them so long as you exercise the ability to form good arguments within what was just,” the proud Atenean imparted.
“He used to tell me that his dream was to be a lawyer, but unfortunately, his parents were financially handicapped. All the same, he was grateful to finish college with a Bachelor of Science in Education, which is why he became a teacher. In short, I took it upon myself to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer.”
A good son, Calida was careful in the choices he made in college, to be sure he achieved his father’s dream the best way he could. He thus majored in English at the Ateneo de Davao University as “a necessary tool for someone who wants to pursue Law.”
“Just like carpenters who must have tools, lawyers must also have their proper tools, and one of them is proficiency in the English language. You should also know how to write,” he explained.
“But since I was also interested in Philosophy and especially drawn to debates [Calida was president of the Ateneo de Davao debate team during his time], I took the course as my co-major, and both of them prepared me well for law school.”
Graduating cum laude in 1969, Calida took the next big step to make his father proud and proceeded to take up Law all the way in the big city of Manila.
A provinciano through and through—perhaps the reason why despite his stern demeanor, there remain signs of humility in the way he moves and speaks every now and then—Calida’s entry into the Ateneo de Manila’s College of Law in 1969 was the first time the boy from barrio Sawagnan had to live away from Davao.
“Initially, it was a rather difficult time for me when I moved to Manila for law school,” he admitted. “At that time, the Ateneo de Manila campus was still in Padre Faura in Ermita, and I looked for a boarding house there.”
Faced with the need to adjust from a small town life to the metropolitan scene, he remembers often moving house, unable to get settled for a variety of reasons.
“Sometimes I didn’t like the food they served so I’d move out,” he chuckled. “My parents remained in Davao where my father continued to work in GSIS, and my mother her teaching job at the same public school where I graduated. I guess I missed home but eventually, I made friends in law school and joined [the Aquila Legis]fraternity and had instant ‘brods’.”
A consistent Dean’s Lister through the next four years, Calida graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1973, immediately taking the Bar Examination with the highest grade of 100 percent in Criminal Law, 90 percent in Civil Law, and 90 percent in Taxation. The brilliant Davaoeño was only 23 years old at this promising crossroads and had his whole future ahead of him.
Ever the dutiful son, Calida, who successfully achieved his father’s dream of becoming a lawyer, chose to return to Davao even if he had spun dreams of his own by then of practicing law in New York.
“My father was so proud of me that the first thing he did when the Bar Exam results came out in the papers was to order a shingle with my name ‘Jose C. Calida, Attorney at Law.’ He hung it in front of our house for everyone to see,” Calida laughed fondly.
“But since I was the only child and realized my parents were getting older, I made the decision to stay in Davao and forego my plans of going to New York. At that time, Law graduates from Ateneo and the University of the Philippines only needed to present their credentials for processing and they would be accepted in the Bar of New York and California.”
Looking back, Calida has no regrets over choosing to be close to his parents, for what followed for the young lawyer nonetheless was a swift progression in his career, from joining a local law firm in Davao City to setting up his own practice, heading the legal teams of such major companies as Prudential Guarantee and Assurance, Inc.
and Security Bank among others, and his first government appointment as Undersecretary of the Department of Justice to becoming the 48th Solicitor General of the Republic of the Philippines.
“Being the defender of the republic is an awesome responsibility and I accept it and pursue it wholeheartedly,” Calida said of this current pinnacle of his career.
“Maybe this is my destiny—even if I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be Solicitor General. I mean, could you imagine, a boy who was born in the boondocks, with public school teachers for parents, becoming the top lawyer of the Philippines?” he said in disbelief, those traces of provinciano humility more evident than ever.
“I wish my parents were still alive so they could see me right now,” he smiled quietly.
Openly grateful for the extraordinary opportunities that came his way—from that fateful day the public school supervisor made him a student barely out of his toddler years, to becoming Solicitor General—it becomes convincing for Calida to claim that “kindness always finds its way through (his) decisions.”
“I am kind to those who are kind to me—and life has been kind to me,” he averred.
As such, he may indeed exist authentically, to borrow from Sarte’s philosophy that “we live according to our own beliefs and experiences”—in his case the total sum of the provincial lad who was raised with the value of hard work and respect; the Jesuit student encouraged to think freely for the glory of God and as a man for others; a gifted criminal lawyer; and a responsible government appointee.
And the free thinker that he is, Calida is all the more grateful to find himself in a very “unique” position of the Solicitor General.
“If you look at our seal, there are two functions there,” he pointed out. “One is ‘Republic Defender,’ so I defend the government its branches, instrumentalities, agencies as well as officers. But I was also given the power under the administrative code and in law to be the ‘People’s Tribune.’ That means, if my office does not agree with the position taken by a government agency, and if I think it’s for the best interest of the government—that we should not support this policy or decision—I have the discretion not to defend a government agency or instrumentality and side with the other party, and ultimately it’s the people of the Philippines.
“Now the concept of the People’s Tribune actually originated in Rome at a time when the aristocrats were the oligarchs,” he continued. “Of course there was a Senate in Rome. To balance the injustice, they created what we now call the ‘tribunate’ or ‘tribune’ who will defend the interest of those who are less fortunate in life. The scales of justice will be uneven if there is no tribune because only those oligarchs or those in power will benefit from this unequal justice. If I were to use another term, I would be the equalizer.”
And so in the final analysis, what then may a person need to equalize injustice, other than adhering to the rule of law? Solicitor General or not, the American Christian publishing veteran and author James Stuart Bell offers the following from his book, The One Year Men of the Bible: “Even if you don’t believe you have much to offer others, keep in mind that a simple act of kindness is a great equalizer.”
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1974: Associate, Amoguis & Gumban Law Office, Davao City
1980: Professor, Ateneo de Davao University College of Law Partner, Rama, Dureza Calida & Abarquez Law Firm, Davao City
1982: Senior Associate, Santiago, Vidanes, Jorge Law Firm, Makati City
1984: AVP for Legal and Head, Litigation Group, Security Bank, Makati City
1992: Partner, Fabregas, Calida & Remollo Law Firm, Makati City
1997: Co-founder and president of Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption
1998: Co-founder and Secretary General, Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption
2000: Member, Prosecution Team of Estrada Impeachment Trial
2001 to 2004: Department of Justice Undersecretary
Appointed by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, then Undersecretary Jose Calida was in charge of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Witness Protection, Security and Benefits Program, Office of the Government Corporate Counsel, DOJ National Task Force on Terrorism and Internal Security, and DOJ Task Force on Financial Fraud and Money Laundering.
2004: Executive Director of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB)
In this capacity, Calida conceptualized and implemented the “Barkada Kontra Droga.” The DDB’s flagship project in drug prevention and control. It was a peer-based anti-drug advocacy program empowering the youth to become change agents in their school and community. He further implemented the “Lakbay Aral Kontra Droga” and “Lakbay Kontra Droga”, which were both aimed at heightening public awareness in the government’s anti-drug policies and programs.
2005 to 2016: Return to private practice
Calida’s stellar career in private law practice spans three decades. Previously, he was the Senior Vice-President and General Counsel of Prudential Guarantee and Assurance, Inc. (Coyiuto Group of Companies), Chairman and President of Vigilant Investigative and Security Agency, Inc., and General Counsel of Philippine Association of Detective and Protective Agency Operators, Inc.
2016 to present: Solicitor General of the Republic of the Philippines
In July 2016, Calida was appointed the 48th Solicitor General by then newly elected President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
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Quo warranto explained
“The problem with some politicians is they are quick to criticize but they don’t really know what quo warranto is. There’s a saying that ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing.’
“As I have said, there are two separate tracks [in the case of Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno].
“Track 1, impeachment, presupposes that the appointee was qualified for the position and after he was appointed, he committed offenses, like culpable violation of the constitution, bribery, graft and corruption, treason and other crimes.
“So it is after he was appointed when he committed offenses. And there is no question as to the eligibility and the qualifications. In other words, the appointee complied with all of these things. So the proper remedy [in this scenario]is impeachment.
“But in another situation, a different track is quo warranto. Here, before the person is appointed—in others words, when he goes through the Judicial and Bar Council—in the judiciary, there are certain qualifications for eligibility that the hopeful or aspirant must possess.
“But if he does not possess all the qualifications, and he is appointed, we now question what authority do you have to hold your position when you did not actually comply with eligibility requirements beforehand.
“So in the pre-appointment—in this quo warranto—the aspirant failed to qualify. Dito naman sa impeachment, the aspirant qualified and he was appointed so this is post-appointment.
“Now they are saying, those who are hitting us, that this petition is unconstitutional but they are wrong because the constitution provides eligibility requirements and there is an important provision there in the constitution.
There is a moral eligibility requirement and that pertains to the applicant—that he must have, aside from proven competence, integrity, probity and loyalty.
“How do you assess probity? Through another constitutional requirement that you should file SALNs, which is important because it shows that you are willing to disclose your wealth or any business interests and of course pay the right taxes.
“Now if you don’t submit your SALNs, at the time when—in the case of Sereno who received millions as consultant of the government in that Piatco case—your integrity is questionable. And that is one of the important qualifications under the constitution, and also supported by law.
“So where is the unconstitutionality of quo warranto now? The state has a right to oust the person who does not hold or who holds the office illegally. Now if people will understand that, they will not accuse us that this is a conspiracy.
“This is the proper remedy for attorney Sereno’s problem and I hope I made it clear.”
INTERVIEW BY CHRISTINA ALPAD